Today we have a global pandemic. Which threatens the health of people and economies. Time will tell which one is more vulnerable, and which we are more willing to risk. Time will also tell who was wrong, and the answer will likely be all of us.
Today we have social unrest. Our history, our norms, our future; the disagreement is as wide as it is deep. It is unclear if we could say that we are minimally joined on the basis of a Constitution, or by birth inexorably separated on the basis of identity. Time will privilege popular speech, or well-funded speech, and we are certainly speaking. Time will also tell who has been listening, and the answer will likely be none of us.
Today is a season of cultural pessimism, to the extreme.
The risks of too much cultural fervor have been well studied. The risks of its antithesis have not.
In 1873 the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche published Thoughts out of Season. The first essay in the text was a commentary on the War of 1870 between the Second French Empire and the North German Confederation which was led by the Kingdom of Prussia. The French lost. The treaty of Frankfurt was signed. The German Empire was born. And German intellectuals and newspapers proclaimed far and wide a victory on the basis of the great German culture. This had consequences later in two wars that most Americans are well aware of. My focus is not on this history – though giving a brief was necessary for context – but rather Nietzsche’s essay, which offers us truths for today.
But of all evil results due to the last contest with France, the most deplorable, perhaps, is that widespread and even universal error of public opinion and of all who think publicly, that German culture was also victorious in the struggle, and that it should now, therefore, be decked with garlands, as a fit recognition of such extraordinary events and successes. This error is in the highest degree pernicious: not because it is an error,—for there are illusions which are both salutary and blessed,—but because it threatens to convert our victory into a signal defeat. A defeat?—I should say rather, into the uprooting of the “German Mind” for the benefit of the “German Empire.”Friedrich Nietzsche, Thoughts out of Season
This is a risk in too much love of culture. The consequences were predicted by Nietzsche in 1873. Too much love of self is to the detriment of the other. It makes us exclusionary, and if left unchecked, violently exclusionary.
How then could too little love of self – or hatred of American culture – be without equivalent risk? The nature of the risks borne by any thesis are borne of its antithesis. It is simply their appearances that are different.
Public opinion in America today is not altogether different than what Nietzsche was commenting on. The winds are of a similar heat and volume, just a different direction.
To rephrase that statement from Nietzsche – it is widespread and universal of all those who think publicly that American culture is damned and the cause of our struggles, and that it should now, therefore, be chastised on 24-hour news, hashtags, and emails in your promotions folder.
It is no longer the fault in us, nor the fault in our stars – It is American culture that we blame for our defeats of the day.
I offer no defense for the present leadership in the current crises, nor the invisible asterisk placed by the founders after the word Liberty. What I do defend most seriously is what is textually enshrined in our Constitution – we constrain the powerful.
Our Laws were not written to grant rights to the powerful or unlimited license to the elected majority. They were written to constrain them, saints, tyrants, and fools alike – but especially tyrants and fools, as well as too great a wind of change.
Here, I must directly quote W.B. Yeats, as I could not possibly improve this statement:
Berkeley proved that the world was a vision, and Burke that the State was a tree, no mechanism to be pulled in pieces and put up again, but an oak tree that had grown through centuries.W.B. Yeats, Speech to Irish Literary Society, 1925
A State that isn’t like a tree is a tyranny. Meaning it must grow. But slowly.
These ideas are profound. They are the axiom bearing the weight of the American project – of liberty and justice for all, itself. These are being questioned. And those questions are left unchecked as we popularly display our opposition to American culture. And to not be misunderstood, I regard American culture as the ideas which I call so profound. Ideas drafted in Our Declaration, enshrined in Our Constitution, and fortified in Our Bill of Rights.
To return to Nietzsche, how is our cultural pessimism questioning this? We are looking to cultures that managed their response to the pandemic with greater infection-rate declines. We look at Korea, a very centralized government and orderly culture. We look to western Europe, cultures that rely more heavily on the State. Notably, all of these are much smaller geographies, which makes governance and centralized authority more effective and cost efficient. The sign above Plato’s Academy read “let no one ignorant of geometry enter here.” For Plato, ignorance to basic physical facts of the world prevented one from engaging in philosophy. It could just as well be said that ignorance to basic geography prevents one from engaging in political philosophy.
But our facts are selected. And with that, it is easy to say that American culture is wrong. In this season. It is with risk, perhaps, that I defend these notions. If the reason were only my preference that the risks of too much liberty are more acceptable than the risks of too little, I wouldn’t feel cause to write.
Yet I do so because the flower of government – its policies, programs, and interventions – grows from a seed of culture and law.
The more our cultural pessimism grows, the more our legal principles will fall into the mere words they actually are. The flower that grows from it, with time, will be very different.
Time is a better judge. And the history future writes, like so many histories already written, will be authored less by truth, justice, or liberty, and more by the victor.